Today is John Key's anniversary as National Party leader. He talks to Sue Eden of NZPA about the highlights and low points of his first year in the job.

Key Points:

National leader John Key is planning a big profile push in the lead-up to Christmas that will see him tour the country, giving him a taste of what an election campaign will be like as leader.

That "heartland" tour will see him visit 40 towns in nine days.

He is also releasing a 12-minute DVD, which will be available on websites, to help the public learn more about him.

The "conversational" DVD is for people who have never met Mr Key.

This is partly to counter the perception among some that they do not know too much about the man who wants to be prime minister.

While National's polling shows more people are getting to know Mr Key, the aim is to end the year on a high note and keep Mr Key and National in the public eye - and the polls.

In his first year as leader, Mr Key has managed something former leader Don Brash could not - a unified caucus.

"Certainly the caucus is in fantastic shape. It's united, it's tight, it's disciplined and I think that's something we haven't seen for a while and it demonstrates an Opposition that's wanting to move into being the Government."

The point he had made to the caucus was that if "you can't manage yourself, you're very unlikely to prove to the public that you can manage the country".

He says the National Party itself is in good shape. He understands it has gained members since he has been leader.

And he disputes the claim that National is funded by a very small group of individuals, saying there are "tens of thousands" of supporters who give modest sums to the party.

Some of Mr Key's successes include his Burnside speech on the underclass and his high risk gamble in taking Aroha Ireland to Waitangi with him.

Aroha had been at her home in Owairaka when Mr Key visited her street, which he had referred as one of the "mean streets" home to a New Zealand underclass.

The trip, by taxpayer-funded limousine, to Waitangi could have gone horribly wrong but he pulled it off.

Mr Key rates the compromise he brokered on the so-called anti-smacking legislation as a high point of his year.

Until that compromise was reached, all but one National MP had opposed Green MP Sue Bradford's controversial bill.

Mr Key ensured an amendment was passed to make it clear the police had the discretion not to prosecute complaints against a parent where the offence was considered to be "so inconsequential" that there was no public interest in the prosecution going ahead.

He and Prime Minister Helen Clark held a joint press conference, and Mr Key came out of it looking statesmanlike.

Mr Key says this compromise proved that while National did not agree with everything in the bill, "we could put the position of New Zealanders in front of petty politics to try and make something that we thought was bad into at least something slightly better".

But the personable Mr Key was also hit by a series of gaffes - including during his first speech as leader to a National Party annual conference when he declared that "under a Labour government I lead" child abusers would face a crackdown.

A few days later he was the target of an orchestrated Labour attack, when ministers hammered him over a mish-mash of statements he had made.

These included contradictory remarks on whether New Zealand should send troops to Iraq, and his confusing stance on the controversial trans-Tasman therapeutics regulatory regime when he raised hopes there could be a deal before remembering that National had long opposed it.

But there was more. There was also the supposed good news press conference to release the party's health discussion document that rapidly descended into a story about National's plans to scrap the Government's controls on doctors' fees.

The Labour attack on Mr Key in the House was not pretty to watch, as a deflated Mr Key struggled to make ground.

He had expected the attack.

"We'd decided that before I went down there that we'd just let it ride."

But then Mr Key thought about changing tack and hitting back and he believes that hesitating over strategy was a mistake.

How Mr Key would fare in the gladiatorial theatre of the debating chamber was widely speculated on when he became leader.

He says he does not feel intimidated by it, and actually enjoys it.

When Dr Brash went to Parliament for question time, he was apprehensive. Not so Mr Key.

He feels his performance in Parliament had gone "broadly, pretty well" and that he, and National, have scored their share of wins in the debating chamber.

"I'm not by nature a nasty person. And I think I've got a pretty good sense of humour and I'll certainly take the mickey out of them a bit... But I'm never going to be a Trevor Mallard. I'm not the sort of person that's going to go in there and just be nasty for the sheer sake of it. And I'm not going to get personal like they do, not as a general rule."

Up against Miss Clark, he believes there are a lot of days "where it's broadly a draw".

"That's my read of it. I don't often come out thinking `Oh God, she monstered me or I monstered her'."

Then there is Mr Key's performance with the public.

Recent polls have had Labour closing the gap on National, although there was one poll last week that contradicted that trend.

"You've got to earn the right to be the Government. We don't take anything for granted," Mr Key says.

In the first poll of the year, National and Labour were "41 all". TV3 had National two points behind, and TV One's poll had National six in front.

"Since then, there's never been a poll where National's been behind Labour. The gap is realistically eight to 10 points and that's a pretty decent gap."

The polls would bounce around and "tighten up".

National had a plan, and policy was "in the locker" ready to be released in 2008.

Mr Key rates that couple of weeks after National's August conference when he was being attacked from all quarters as the low point of his year has leader.

"It was a level of performance that was below what I would expect of myself."

The highlights include the compromise on the child discipline bill, and getting the job in the first place.

"It's a great job. It's a real privilege. Look, I really enjoy getting out there and meeting people. It comes with a lot of responsibility but a lot of opportunity."

It's also one step away from his dream job.

* Mr Key was speaking from Scott Base in Antarctica where he has spent the past week.

Mr Key - just back from Antartica - sets off on his heartland tour this afternoon, visiting Darfield, Ashburton and Timaru.

Tomorrow he will be in Geraldine, Timaru, Waimate and Oamaru.


- NZPA